China's Jade Rabbit Moonshot

A model of the moon rover Jade Rabbit displayed during the 15th China International Industry Fair in Shanghai on Nov. 5 Photograph by Imaginechina via AP Images

China’s moon rover has a name: Jade Rabbit. State media reported that the motorized moon buggy was named after a famous Chinese legend about a pet rabbit that lived on the moon. The rocket that will carry Jade Rabbit into space will be launched on an unspecified date in early December, according to China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.

China’s space program successfully launched a satellite that orbited the moon in 2007, under President Hu Jintao’s watch. Now, a year into the Xi Jinping era, China is aiming for another milestone—its first unmanned moon landing.

The rover’s scientific mission will include collecting samples of lunar “soil” and taking ultraviolet readings of distant stars. The rover is also—already—being used as a public diplomacy tool to highlight China’s growing scientific ambitions. A much-photographed model of the gold-colored lunar buggy graced the 15th China International Industry Fair in Shanghai earlier this month. An official press conference about its mission was recently carried live on state-run TV.

While Jade Rabbit may seem impressive—assuming its mission runs successfully—China’s leaders are already talking up two bigger ambitions: establishing an international space station and sending a man or woman to the moon. The probable timeline for both goals is sometime in the 2020s.

Both the U.S. and Russian (formerly Soviet) space programs historically intermingled scientific, diplomatic, and military objectives. While China’s space program has recently drawn international attention, the full range of Beijing’s future intentions is perhaps harder to glimpse clearly than the dark side of the moon.

In the meantime, both Chinese and American diplomats are duly wary of calling anything a “space race.”

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